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Would Hamlet be better if it had a happy ending?
August 8, 2011 10:05 AM   Subscribe

This past July marked the 253rd birthday of Thomas Bowdler, English physician and source of the eponym bowdlerise (or bowdlerize), through his family-friendly editing of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (prev), which was written originally by English historian Edward Gibbon. Though Thomas' name is on the later editions of The Family Shakespeare, it was his sister, Henrietta Maria Bowdler (commonly called Harriet), who actually excised the texts and removed about 10% of the original text that which she felt "cannot with propriety be read aloud in family." Some sample comparisons of the edits can be seen here. With that, Henrietta (and Thomas) earned a place in the ranks of Shakespeare editors (prev-ish).

Addendum:

Harriet was believed to be a member of the Bluestockings Circle, which started as a London-based group, but "developed into a broader social and literary network in which friendship, charity and female education were celebrated as the foundation of modern civilised society."

The story of the Henrietta Bowdler and her family were recently made into a play, The Family Shakespeare, which ran in April 2011.
posted by filthy light thief (21 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Censorious Puritans are yet among us, alas.
posted by kinnakeet at 10:15 AM on August 8, 2011


, what a !
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:44 AM on August 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


The page with some of the edits is actually pretty funny. "The bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” becomes "the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon." Because even suggestive puns are too much, it seems. And don't even get them started on bird's nests...

It's interesting how the Bowdlers prioritized excision over the preservation of Shakespeare's original meter. It would be obvious to anyone that there were things missing from the text, since the edited portions wouldn't line up with everything else. But I guess they figured that anyone who was mature enough to perceive the changes would be able to bear Shakespeare's lusty words in their original form, in some unedited text.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:50 AM on August 8, 2011


I was going to note the meter too. And then it occurred to me: In the bowdlerized Romeo and Juliet, do they still commit suicide? I assume so. Get rid of the sex, keep the violence. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
posted by DU at 10:59 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, they still die.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:05 AM on August 8, 2011


If you took out the violence, Shakespeare's tragedies would be a lot more than ten percent shorter. Most of them would just stop abruptly without tying up any of the subplots. Juliet would lie down for a nap, and that would be it. Hamlet (who's really mad for some reason) is about to duel Laertes, and then the curtain comes down. Very frustrating!
posted by Kevin Street at 11:09 AM on August 8, 2011


Er, Yes, they still die (previous link was a wee bit early in the play).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:12 AM on August 8, 2011


If you took out the violence, Shakespeare's tragedies would be a lot more than ten percent shorter.

If you add explosions, they get a lot shorter. Meet Explosive Pentameter!

"To be, or not to be?" *KABOOM*

"What light through yonder window breaks?" *KABOOOM!*

"Get thee to an armory!" *KABOOOOM!*

"Friends, Romans, countrymen! Cover your ears!" *KABOOOOOM!*

"By the pricking of my thumbs, something ticking this way comes." *KABOOOOOOM*!

And so forth.
posted by eriko at 11:14 AM on August 8, 2011 [11 favorites]


eriko: If you add explosions, they get a lot shorter. Meet Explosive Pentameter!

And with that, eriko created the next series of titles from Quirk Books (the fine folks you brought you Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Android Karenina, and The Meowmorphosis.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:24 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Censorious Puritans are yet among us, alas.

Which underscores the awesomeness of the 1980 TV show that linked last week.

And if you haven't been paying attention, there was a well-bowdlerized Shakespeare movie released this year: "Gnomeo and Juliet".

But still, I might go see "Die Hamlet With a Vengeance".
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:32 AM on August 8, 2011


Regarding censorship fucking up meter, I am quite fond of the radio edits of hiphop where a quick spitting MC has all his curses silenced, creating a very strange experiment in erased rhythm. I am glad this has such an old precedent. Better the edits be annoying and obvious I think.
posted by idiopath at 11:32 AM on August 8, 2011


I looked through History of the Decline and Fall and found this juicy tidbit

Original:
A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex, preferred the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonoured the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor's, or as he more properly styled himself of the empress's, husband.
Bowdlerized:
A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy his passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex, preferred the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonoured the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers.
posted by exogenous at 11:35 AM on August 8, 2011


I prefer Ted Woolsey.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:36 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does the right to do this fall under some freedom of speech law?

If so, I think I just divided by zero.
posted by Malice at 11:43 AM on August 8, 2011


Malice: Does the right to do this fall under some freedom of speech law?

I don't think freedom of speech comes into this in any way. Rather, I think you would look to copyright. The Family Shakespeare was written in the 1800s, and Thomas was born almost 160 years after Shakespeare died. I'm not really sure what laws would apply to creatively editing 200+ year old text. Moreso, copies of Shakespeare's writings exist in various states, including numerous bad quartos.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:09 PM on August 8, 2011


The modern version.
posted by kmz at 1:28 PM on August 8, 2011


A different Thomas, Ambrose Thomas, did an Opera (following the Dumas translation) that gave Hamlet a "happy" ending. Although "happy" is debatable given that Hamlet is the last man standing after an act filled with suicide, death, madness, and despair. I came to a conclusion that putting that navel-gazing asshole on a throne where he could brood over the tragedy he caused is even more sadistic than killing him in the final act.

In my opinion, Ophelia's suicide aria and a scenery-chewing duet between Hamlet and Gertrude more than make up for a weak ending. Shakespeare himself was plagiarizing earlier dramatic works and shoehorning them into the political sensibilities of his audience, so I think he's fair game/revisioning.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:39 PM on August 8, 2011


Oh, people absolutely have the right to do this, and they should have that right. It's just another example of our remix culture, which has created so much great work. It's a particularly morally bankrupt and douchebaggy example, but that's how it works.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 3:34 PM on August 8, 2011


Any way we can get the Bowdlers back to have at Jersey Shore? Not for the naughty bits, but the dumb bits.
posted by anothermug at 4:55 PM on August 8, 2011


Trying to get rid of the naughty bits from the history of the Roman Empire seems about as quixotic a task as painting on bras in Showgirls. Surely, a truly virtuous Victorian would pretend any of the bits after Augustus hadn't happened? What was Mr Bowdler doing reading all that smut in the first place?
posted by lesbiassparrow at 5:41 PM on August 8, 2011


Erasures: as frustrating in literature as they are in Java.
posted by Rockear at 8:08 PM on August 8, 2011


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